Making the Invisible, Visible

Philanthropy411 is currently covering the Communications Network Fall 2013 Annual Conference conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by  Maryland M. Grier, Senior Communications Officer at the Connecticut Health Foundation.  Follow Maryland on Twitter – @marylandgrier.

Grier1When plenary speaker Maria Hinojosa said, “make the invisible visible,” in talking about underserved communities, I heard the word, “aha!” in my head. For me, a lifelong priority has been to support folks who are often referred to as ‘the underdog.’ Often, we in foundations identify the exemplary or popular grantees for media interviews, videos, or features, when in fact, we have hidden jewels whose stories will resonate as more human, real stories for reporters as well as their audiences.

Our new strategic focus at the Connecticut Health Foundation (CT Health) is to help more people of color gain access to better health care. (See our pretty cool infographic).  In Connecticut, 65 percent of the people who do not have health coverage are people of color – many invisible to the general public. These are immigrants, working poor, or people whose primary language is not English. Maria’s comment made me realize the importance of humility and a sincerity when listening to ‘invisible’ people – also leaders in their own rights– for their perspectives. I have been inspired to work in partnership with grantees, Navigators and in-person assisters and other partners to ‘make the invisible visible’ so that they too will have a say in the health care system and how it’s working for them.

Communications professionals, especially in philanthropy, tend to like to stay behind-the-scenes, making things happen – or be invisible themselves.  Conferences force ‘invisibles’ to be ‘visible.’ That is… if you want to take advantage of the opportunity to learn from your peers.  For me, that meant I had to do more than sit in a room taking notes.

So, aside from Maria and the other presenters, I actually learned the most from my fellow invisibles – over lunch or dinner, walking to a session, or getting a cab with members of the Network who were very generous and intelligent about various aspects of our work as strategic communicators. What I found most helpful were conversations with peers, questions raised by attendees, and presenter responses.  In light of Maria’s comment, the theme that emerged and resonated for me was ‘storytelling.’ Some of my conversations with peers from other foundations opened my eyes about how else I can use stories or parts of stories.

  • For example, one foundation uses stories to share with board members to give them a real sense of the impact of the investment.
  • Another extrapolates quotes or talking points from stories to use in speeches, videos, reports and other presentations. Just as Maria told the parts of stories during her keynote, I will weave in quotes for use in media interviews or speeches.
  • Another idea shared was to build in time during a board meeting to invite in grantees and clients, not to report on findings from a policy brief, but to share success stories with a human face. It is important to build in time for program to connect the story to the mission and program strategy—building in time for questions and answers.

How have you made the ‘invisible, visible’ in your work as a communicator?

I welcome your comments on the impact of storytelling in accomplishing your mission and goals.

You May Call Us Evangelists

Philanthropy411 is currently covering the Communications Network Fall 2013 Annual Conference conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by  Jorge Cino, Creative Writer & Nonprofit Communications Specialist for the Levi Strauss Foundation.  Follow Jorge on Twitter – @jorgecino.

Cino1From the struggle many nonprofits face in engaging elusive millenials to the complexities of navigating the fragmented media landscape, much (good stuff) has been written by my peers about last week’s 2013 Communications Network Conference.

But the more I reflect on it, the more I return not to the “latest lessons and best practices,” not to the “new tools and resources,” but to a desire to reflect on us, communications folks.

David Simon, creator of the HBO drama The Wire, advised us to “look at the fault lines” and share more of those uncomfortable but illuminating narratives.

Journalist Maria Hinojosa called for us to be reliable resources and educate journalists and bloggers so that they can in turn inform the public on the pressing social issues of our time.

The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta emphasized the importance of maintaining our messages and subject’s integrity, and novelist Junot Diaz urged us to relinquish (partial?) control so that our audiences can own their narratives.

In times of constant change and uncertainty, perhaps the greatest benefit of coming together at a conference like this and hearing from revered “outsiders looking in” is to remind one another of why we love doing what we do, and to renew our commitment to the people and issues we serve.

When designing an innovative or untested communications strategy, are we daring to ask ourselves, “Why not?”

When we finally get a seat at the table with our program peers, are we asking precise (and sometimes tough) questions? How about offering precise (and sometimes tough) answers?

When culling the most impactful stories from our grantees, are we equipping them and our program colleagues with the necessary tools and resources they need to better help us?

Does our passion and enthusiasm to amplify their good work shine through? Are we sharing updates and results along the way with all key stakeholders? Are we modeling transparency and adaptability?

And if not… Why not?

Yes, at the conference I was reminded that us communications folks are, above all, evangelists. And as any good evangelist knows, to inspire others we must first inspire ourselves.

Courts of Law and Public Opinion

Philanthropy411 is currently covering the Communications Network Fall 2013 Annual Conference conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by  Paul VanDeCarr, Managing Director and co-founder of Working Narratives.  Follow along on Twitter – @wnstory.

Paul VanDeCarrCropI learned a few things at the Communications Network conference session on “Impact Litigation as a Tool for Social Change: Perry v. Hollingsworth and the National Conversation about Marriage Equality.”

One, the folks who waged the fight against Proposition 8—in the courts of law and of public opinion—are really smart. Seriously, they’ve got brains to spare. Presenters included Felix Schein, principal of Griffin|Schein, a public interest communications firm; and Adam Umhoefer, executive director of the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER).

Two, on a related note, communications was a critical element of their strategy—for more than one reason. “Impact litigation” means taking on legal cases where a win will affect a lot of people, rather than just the litigants; a communications strategy can help boost the chances of a legal win, complement the impact of a win, or buffer the effects of a loss.

But before I get into that, here’s little memory refresher. In 2008, California’s Proposition 8 passed and amended the state Constitution to eliminate marriage rights for same-sex couples. The public interest communications firm of Griffin|Schein didn’t like that one bit, so they conceived of and launched AFER to fight back; Griffin|Schein still houses AFER and manages strategy and media relations. AFER was the sole sponsor of the federal court challenge of Proposition 8, otherwise known as Hollingsworth v. Perry. That case was argued by legal eagles Theodore Olson and David Boies, who pretty much kicked ass all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

So why does communications matter when using fighting for justice through the courts? For one thing, it matters for fundraising. Okay, maybe not so much in the case of AFER, which was launched almost entirely with funds from a tiny handful of donors, among them record mogul David Geffen. But for other impact litigation groups, it can be tough to get foundation or other financial support, said Schnein in the conference session, because there’s a sense that it’s a “binary”—you either win the case or you lose. So it’s hard for an ED to go to a foundation and ask for a grant for a case they may very well lose, or after the fact to report, “We spent $1 million on this case and we lost.” But Schein disagrees with that perceived binary; if you run a good a communications effort, he says, you can leverage a legal case to change public opinion, regardless of the court’s decision. That boosts nonprofits’ chances of securing foundation support.

Changing public opinion not only matters for fundraising, of course, but for the cause, too. There was a not insignificant shift in public opinion on marriage equality between the passage of Proposition 8 and this summer’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling. That was thanks in part to AFER’s work around the case. On its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the case was heard in Federal District Court, where the judge ruled that the proceedings could not be televised. However, once the transcript of the hearing was released, AFER enlisted Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (“Milk” and “J. Edgar”) to pen “8”—a play based on original interviews and court transcripts. A one-night-only staged reading of the play in NYC and LA by such stars as Morgan Freeman, George Clooney, and Brad Pitt raised a big pile of cash for AFER, and the script was made available for any community group to do their own staged reading and talkback. Community productions and a YouTube video of the play have been watched over a million times. Who knows if it changed any minds, but it certainly rallied the base.

Technically, judges and justices are supposed to make decisions based only on the legal merits, but in truth they may also be swayed by public opinion, or by the opinion of certain publics, anyway. When the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, AFER assembled amicus briefs from big names from across the political spectrum and in government, business and other spheres. The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the appeal to the District Court’s decision, effectively returning marriage equality to California; to capitalize on that victory, AFER and Griffin|Schein organized media events in Los Angeles and San Francisco around the resumption of weddings—they celebrated the win and showed TV viewers that this was nothing threatening.

With the Proposition 8 case over with, the two groups are continuing to fight in other states, with an eye to winning full marriage equality for all Americans. The change they make will not be made in the courts of law alone, but in the hearts of people who come to embrace, or at least tolerate, same-sex marriage. Their example offers a role to foundation communications staffers to support impact litigation grantees looking to have a broader impact than just in court decisions.

Paul VanDeCarr is the managing director of Working Narratives, and the author of that organization’s recently released publication, Storytelling and Social Change: A Strategy Guide for Grantmakers. Write to him at

Thinking about communication at the beginning? What a novel idea!

Philanthropy411 is currently covering the Communications Network Fall 2013 Annual Conference conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by  Lori McClung, President of Advocacy & Communication Solutions.  Follow Lori on Twitter – @mclorius.

LoriMcClung1In most of the sessions I attended at the Communication Network conference in New Orleans, funders and communication professionals alike shared one similar sentiment – building communication into the fabric of their work at the outset was key to their success. Each presenter said it in a slightly different way but the result was always the same: if you plan for it (communication) the people you want to help/the goal you want to achieve will be accomplished.

As a communication professional I agree wholeheartedly. But I kept thinking to myself that many of the people who needed to hear the presentations were not in attendance at the conference. I’m left wondering if we can somehow package the information we all learned (or approaches that just were reinforced) and could somehow share them with those who are not the true believers.

In each organization that skeptic may sit in a different seat (board member, executive director, or whomever). What if they heard the same message over and over again from different people? Perhaps the third party validation would change the culture of an organization – or at least encourage them to think about communication early, rather than last, in at least one project. That success would lead to another success and so on and so on.

We can work together to develop some innovative ways to share what we heard without asking colleagues to read a PowerPoint presentation; it’s the back and forth discussion that they need to hear after all. For those organizations that don’t have 5 internal communication staff and $1 million to spend on a project, we can also figure out how to translate those large scale successes to smaller initiatives.

Great examples of building in communication at the beginning included The Atlantic Philanthropies who used communication assistance as early as the RFP development process in their effort to demonstrate how older adults can lead local change in all types of communities to the Ford Foundation which invested in two years of in-depth message research and development to change the dialogue about economic inequality in America. There are great case studies – and we can use them to help more people to see that while it may not always be easy, integrating communication at the very beginning is the smart thing to do. Every great idea starts with a question and conversation. How do we get this discussion going? How do you think we can get other people on the board? I would love to hear what successes or challenges you’ve had in integrating and embedding communication right from the start? Ready, go!

Ich Bin Ein Communicator?

Philanthropy411 is currently covering the Communications Network Fall 2013 Annual Conference conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by  Bill Wright, Vice President, Outreach and Advocacy at America’s Promise Alliance.  Follow along on twitter – @americaspromise or @APA_wright.

bill_wright2How many people at your organization and your grantees would feel justified in saying, “I’m a communicator”?[1]

The last two years of the Fall conference has made me think about that question a number of times.  While I have no idea what the answer is, what’s encouraging is that more and more people are aiming to make that statement.

One session that approached expanding communication capacity last year was a great breakout called “Can Foundations Train Their Grantees to Be Effective Communicators?” Leading it were two people from the Hewlett Foundation, communications director Eric Brown and performing arts program officer Julie Fry.  As Eric pointed out in his introduction, the foundation had for years provided its grantees communications strategy training.  The problem: it didn’t know if this program did any good.

After an evaluation demonstrated how to improve the training, the foundation developed a simple set of tools that generated illuminating data its program officers can use to monitor and evaluate their grantees’ communications strategies. In the session, Eric and Julie offered a case study of how a program officer, a grantee and a methodology came together to integrate communications into program evaluation.

At the end of this year’s conference, another breakout examined how to make more people strong communicators. “Transformative Capacity Building Models: Strengthening Grantee Communications Skills Beyond Funding” featured a first-rate lineup: Michael Hoffman of See3; , author and trainer Beth Kanter; Eva Penar from The Chicago Community Trust; and Farra Trompeter of Big Duck. They discussed a range of techniques for building communications capacity, including management assistance programs, peer-learning cohorts, train-the-trainers and grant-supported training.

One particularly valuable part of this session was how it considered how to make sure these efforts pay lasting benefits. For example, Farra noted that the person who gets training might leave the organization, so they have insisted on having two people from grantees attend, so that the knowledge survives any single departure. Michael pointed out one great way to offset the reluctance of program staff to participate in communications training: align the training with ongoing program initiatives.

But it wasn’t just these two sessions were encouraging signs of a commitment to extending communications skill past the communications department. Other breakouts shows multiple examples of how communications staff are working to connect, early and often, with program officers and grantees.

The many sessions that centered on social media made a similar point about how everyone can be a communicator.  Because of the ease of contributing to the dialogue online, especially through Twitter, the opportunities for program staff to support outreach efforts have never been greater. And like so many things, once program staff get involved – both posting and reading responses – they’re much more likely to appreciate the importance of communications.

There’s still lots of room for improvement, both for how program officers communicate and how communications staff work with program officers.  But it’s exciting to see that both groups are converging, moving towards having all people in an organization able to communicate the power of its work.

[1] In case you’re wondering, John F. Kennedy did not say, in fact, that he was a jelly donut in 1963 when he used that construction in Berlin.  Since he was speaking figuratively, he was grammatically correct.

Confronting the Coming World

Philanthropy411 is currently covering the Communications Network Fall 2013 Annual Conference conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by  Dan Brady, Communications Manager at the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers.  Follow along on Twitter – @givingforum.

BradyDuring his plenary, David Simon of “The Wire” and “Treme” told a story about working in the Baltimore Sun newsroom at the advent of the internet. He described an editor telling writers how kids would “surf the web” and upon finding the Baltimore Sun’s website, they’d discover that they loved newspapers and start buying them.

The assumptions behind that business model for newspapers in the digital age were, of course, hopelessly flawed. Ken Auletta of The New Yorker echoed Simon’s take on the collapse of the newspaper industry saying, “Traditional media didn’t confront the coming world.” It failed to invest in engineers, web developers, and others who could provide the underpinning platform for the news outlets of the Twenty-first century.

These comments got me thinking about how philanthropy takes change head-on. From the rise of digital culture to shifting demographics, our world is always changing. Foundations and the non-profits they support are at the forefront, trying to make sense of it all, finding new ways to navigate issues.

As communication professionals, our challenge is to develop messages that reflect and convey both the changing landscape and the good work being done to address the needs of those we serve. There are times that we get both wrong, like the editor in Simon’s tale, but philanthropy is uniquely positioned not only to get a birds-eye-view of an issue, but also to learn from our mistakes, correct our assumptions, and keep trying.

Simon encouraged us to “Tell the real.” We need to be able to find authentic stories to advance our missions and show how our organizations are investing in the solutions we need to confront the coming world.

Permission to be Authentic

Philanthropy411 is currently covering the Communications Network Fall 2013 Annual Conference conference.  This is a guest post by Betsey Russell, Owner Last Word, LLC.   Follow Betsey on Twitter – @BetseyPR.

BetseyRussellTwo of the overarching themes at the Communications Network conference just concluded in New Orleans were the elements of creating good stories and the importance of amplifying them.  It makes perfect sense. A beautiful, compelling story unshared is a wasted opportunity. And a poorly told or meaningless story that’s pushed out there to millions is a complete waste of time.

Grantmaker conferences and articles over the past couple of years have been rich with advice and wisdom about how to craft a compelling narrative to further worthwhile causes. But some of the best advice I’ve heard recently came from two separate ComNet keynotes, David Simon and Maria Hinojosa — be authentic.

Sounds great, especially when coming from folks in mass media, but what does that mean for an individual storyteller like me, or institutional storytellers like the foundations I work with?

This is the uncomfortable part. Authenticity means stripping down the trappings of propriety, correctness and yes, even brand, to get to the basic humanity within the story you want to tell.  It means showing at least a little bit of who you really are, by showing why you care about something or someone in your story.

For the vast majority of folks who work in private philanthropy, this is an intimidating – if not downright terrifying – concept. Exposing our true thoughts and formative experiences to our peers would be akin to running stark naked across the stage during the next conference’s keynote address.

“Besides,” we’re quick to point out, “As funders, it’s not our own story that we really want to tell, but the stories of our grantees. Yes, yes. That’s it. They are the ones whose stories we wish to amplify!”

Good point. But here’s a challenge to consider: Suppose I dangled a huge check above your head and said, “This is meant for you, because I like what I’ve seen so far. But now, I want you to show me your purest and truest self. Oh, and if I like that, I want to share it with the world.”

How authentic would you dare to be? When compensation and acceptance are so rarely tied to true authenticity, how likely are any of us to tell the stories in our hearts versus the stories we’ve shaped to impress?

Authenticity requires a great deal of permission — from ourselves, from our peers, from those who support us. Creating that permissive environment doesn’t happen with the wave of a wand. It takes a great deal of trust, positive reinforcement, honesty, and mutual sharing of selves. It takes risk on all sides.

So, is true authenticity worth it? Is it something we can actually attain? These are the questions I’m pondering in the wake of ComNet 2013.

What do you think?